How Empires Survives the Modern Music Marketplace

FROM ZERO TO HERO: Lessons from Chicago artists in thriving during the digital era

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Until last year, the Chicago rock band Empires had been content doing things their way. Like any unsigned rock band in the modern music era, the quartet (singer Sean Van Vleet, guitarists Tom Conrad and Max Steger, and drummer Ryan Luciani) had mined personal bank accounts for recording expenses, gassed up their own cars to tour, and logged hours on their MySpace and Twitter pages cultivating a growing fan base.

Then this smalltime band was invited to compete against more than 1,000 other acts in Rolling Stone’s first-ever Do You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star? contest. The prize: an August 2011 cover of the magazine, a performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and a contract with Atlantic Records. Still, band members hesitated to get involved.

“So far, they had done everything on their own, from writing to producing to mixing to art direction to how they communicate with fans,” explains the group’s manager, Justin Becker. “So it scared them knowing that someone else would be able to step up and voice their opinion.” Conrad, a guitarist, says the promise of greater exposure ultimately swayed them to participate.

“Bands need to take personal responsibility for their careers now more than ever,” says Jim Powers, owner of the Chicago label Minty Fresh Records. “Successful bands today build a direct relationship with their fans.”

Fortunately, Empires already had a fan-friendly track record. They released their 2008 debut, Howl, for free on their website and count more than 70,000 downloads to date. The band hopes these same listeners will log on and vote in the Rolling Stone contest, which in its final stages is determined solely by the public. (At presstime, Empires were one of four finalists.) The winner will be announced on the August 1st episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

To rally supporters, the band has played on morning TV shows, performed on Ustream.tv and Threadless.com, and incentivized fans with free music.

Damian Kulash, the lead singer of OK Go, knows firsthand how much the Internet plays a role in band promotion. In 2007, OK Go’s treadmill-themed video “Here It Goes Again” went viral, earning millions of views simply because it was entertaining. According to Kulash, the reason the music video was so successful was the extrapolation of the oldest trick of the trade: word of mouth—or in this case the forwarding of a link. So while many aspects of the entertainment industry have changed, one thing remains paramount: Fans are more in control than ever of determining a hit.

“Ten or twenty years ago, it was possible for someone to sit at the head of a record label and spend enough money and push enough buttons that something was successful despite it being completely unlikable,” Kulash says. “But these days, that doesn’t really happen. People aren’t going to send something on to their friends unless they like it.”

For Empires, whether or not they land the cover of Rolling Stone, the next steps are maintaining that likability, even if it means they’re back to doing it on their own. “If we were out of this competition tomorrow, we’d still be out on the road,” says Becker. “One of the biggest hurdles is figuring out how to harness all the good that does come out of this and make whatever we do going forward even stronger than it would have been.”


Sources: *Recording Industry of America  **The Nielsen Company & Billboard’s 2010 Music Industry Report

 

Icons: Alan Boccadoro

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